Despite its canonical status, the long medieval poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is a veritable mixed-bag: its structural sophistication (relative, at least, to other chivalric romances of the period) and genuine charm cannot fully subvert the archaic nature of its plot, characters and symbolism; and, like pretty much every work of surviving early world literature, its importance lies mainly in foundational aspects rather than real artistic quality, which would become more available to writers with the advent of modernity. However, it is certainly an odd tale, and underneath its whimsies one senses something grimmer at play. A danger, even: fatal dismembering contests, the body-horror of the headless, talking warrior, the strange, clandestine games officiated by personages hidden from Gawain’s knowledge, his impotent, not-very-knightly raging at the end, and so on. Plus, the homoerotic subtext in the Gawain-Lord Bertilak interactions point to some authorial mischief, I suspect, although this cannot be proven with any strong degree of accuracy. The story’s opacity, due to historical distance and the anonymity of the poet, simultaneously gestures at these mysteries whilst disclosing them from further scrutiny.
Of course, this has not stopped intense interest in its contents after the re-discovery of the poem’s single surviving manuscript in the early nineteenth century, culminating in reams of academic treatises (thus buttressing its position in the Western canon), a famous translation by J.R.R. Tolkien, and several adaptations into other mediums – with its most recent entry in cinema via writer-director David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021).